By editorial board • 

The stakes are too high to beat a retreat on bags

Tuesday’s front page was topped by a pair of stories on efforts to cope with solid waste, a byproduct of growing global consumerism.

At first glance, the two topics seemed unrelated — keeping the recyclable portion of the waste stream clean enough to meet tough new Chinese standards and continuing a ban on use of plastic bags to package retail goods. But it turns out they are intricately connected, as the trigger point for the Chinese was the humble plastic bag, because it defies easy extraction.

China, it turns out, is not only the largest producer of waste, generating more than one-third of total world production of 750 million tons a year. It is also the largest consumer of the recyclable portion of the rest, annually purchasing about 7.5 million metric tons.

The Chinese have realized waste plastic and paper are valuable in meeting the voracious appetite of their massive manufacturing sector, as long as it arrives clean enough to be economically sorted for re-processing. But that has become increasingly problematic due to the ubiquitous plastic bag.

China banned domestic production and use of plastic bags in 2008, forcing its residents to rely on cloth, vinyl or bamboo. It has become annoyed at their continued presence in imported waste, to the point where it’s now refusing to accept shipments less than 99.5 percent clean.

There are other contaminants, of course, including styrofoam cartons, coffee cartridges, disposable diapers, shredded paper, waxed cartons, food and chemical residue, and cups, caps and lids. But plastic bags remain the most problematic.

Japan and the U.S., the biggest exporters to China, are the most affected. That goes double for the U.S., as without waste to export, it has to send a steady stream of ships back to China with empty cargo holds.

Initially, we were not enamored of the city’s bag ban. But as its enthusiasm has waned under the weight of continued criticism, ours has waxed. And we just don’t see the ban continuing to work if the city caves on the financial incentive.

We urge the city council to hold fast. It long ago weathered the worst, and will never win back those accusing it of needless Nanny State meddling.

Whenever an environmental action is taken mainstream, lack of true passion degrades the result. Inevitably, some people will refuse to rely on reusable bags or seriously sort recyclables. But we can’t afford to beat a retreat.

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